I park my car in the lot adjoining the foreboding, dome- shaped building and step out, carrying my combination tape recorder/radio and notebook. A policeman on a motorcycle calls out, "Can I help you, miss?"
"Yes," I say. "I have an appointment with Lieutenant August."
He smiles, points to the front of the building and says, "You can go in that way, but I suggest you walk along the path. The grass is wet."
"Thanks," I say, returning his smile. Why didn't I put on comfortable shoes and jeans, I think, as I walk toward the entrance.
I had taken a poll the day before. Most people said, "Don't wear slacks – don't wear jewelry – wear a business suit. Remember, they're prisoners and they haven't seen a woman in a long time."
The suit was fine, but I'll probably trip in those shoes and fall flat on my face.
A guard greets me at the door. "Can I help you?" he asks.
"I have an appointment with Lieutenant August. I'm from the Daily Journal."
"Identification please." I show him my driver's license.
"Okay," he says. "I'll get the lieutenant."
A moment later, Lieutenant August appears. He's a muscular man of medium height with thick dark hair and a mustache. He smiles and shakes my hand.
I'm thankful for the tape recorder. I'm too nervous to take notes.
I hang my coat in the closet and follow him to his office, where I complete a form to explain the reasons for my visit to the prison. Then the interview begins.
"The 'tour' was canceled today," Lieutenant August says. "We'll have to make an appointment for you to come back. But I will take you to the Lifers' office. You'll be able to meet the men and talk to them.
"There are fifteen inmate organizations in here," the lieutenant explains, "and I'm supposed to be in charge of all of them. There's the NAACP, Prisoners' representative Committee, Prisoners' Legal Aid . . . They have their own little offices, all located in one area. We supply the lumber and they build their own cubbyholes.
"Six of the organizations, including the Lifers' Group, have their own phones." The lieutenant grins. "It looks like a bookie parlor."
Lieutenant August tells me the history of the Lifers' program. He gives me copies of negative and positive studies conducted by two professors of criminology regarding the effects of the program on juveniles.
We talk for more than an hour. Lieutenant August, or "Augie" as everyone calls him, answers all of my questions.
"I think you've given me more than enough information," I say.
"Are you ready to go upstairs?" Augie asks, as he reaches for the phone.
"Hey, this is Augie. Who's around? Who's up there? Give me Landano or Jones. It doesn't matter." As we wait, he asks me, "Have you ever been in a prison?"
"No – no."
"This is not a normal prison," says Augie. "We televise nationally. Have you ever seen the fights we televise from here?"
"I've heard about them," I say.
Again, he speaks into the phone. "Hey, this is Augie. Who is this? Jonesy? I've got a reporter here from the Daily Journal. I'm going to bring her up so she can talk to you guys. We'll be there in about ten minutes. All right? Thanks."
He puts the receiver back into its cradle and turns to me. "Last year, five national fights were televised from this prison," he says.
"Are you ready? I'll have to lock your pocketbook in the closet. You can't take it with you. You can take your tape recorder and the notebook."
I'm so calm. As we walk through a long corridor, I feel as if I'm wandering through a dream. A guard opens a heavy metal door and locks it behind us.
Augie introduces me to half a dozen policemen, as we march through a tremendous room lined with cells. Another door is opened and then locked behind us. I'm trembling. Someone is going to hit me in the head, I think. And an inmate will escape through one of these doors before the day is over.
A guard inspects my tape recorder. "Hey, watch it," Augie cautions him. "Don't ruin her batteries."
A guard stamps my hand with ultraviolet ink.
We climb three flights of metal stairs. "Next time I'll wear comfortable shoes," I tell Augie.
We enter a large room crowded with prisoners and guards. People are milling about and shouting. Two inmates are playing chess.
Again, I feel as if I'm in a dream. I'm oblivious to the people around me and no one seems to notice that I'm here.
Doors to various offices line one wall of the room. We step inside one door. Five or six tall men are inside. They are dressed in T-shirts and jeans.
"This is the lady from the Journal," says Augie. I tell them my name.
"Why don't you sit here," Augie suggests, leading me to a chair near a large desk.
"I'm Robert Jones," says one man, in a low, melodious voice, "the vice president of the Lifers' Group."
"Please," I ask Jones, pointing to the tape recorder, "can you plug this thing in for me?"
"Sure," says Jones.
Then I press a button. Where was the music coming from?
Jones looks at me and says softly, "You've got the radio on."
"Can you help me with this thing?" I ask. "I'm not used to working with a tape recorder. I usually take notes."
Jones turns the tape recorder on. Augie leaves the room and closes the door behind him.
There goes my guard, I think calmly. But that's okay. It isn't really happening. After all, there are plenty of other women who do things like this -- sit locked in a room with five killers.
Augie returns. The "killers" are soft-spoken, intelligent and polite.
Jones and Rickie Peterson, the group's treasurer, explain the program to me.
"Most times," says Jones, "the kids will see a little more clearly the avenues of escape from this prison -- such as educational values and living a better lifestyle.
"Of course, it helps us as well. When I look at these children, I see a mirror image. When a child comes up here and is wild, bodacious, belligerent, I can look back and say I was just like that. Couldn't nobody tell me nothing. And, as a result, here I am. I could relate to him, like I was him."
Jones speaks about a program the Lifers are planning. "We would like to talk to children before they get into trouble -- the ones who are thinking about it," he says. "Kids who come in here can be helped. They'll listen to us and see that we were actually chasing rainbows and dreams. Then they'll get down to chasing real things."
"What is your name?" I ask a tall man who stands near my chair.
"Fred Malik Wilkes. I'm filling in for the secretary."
"Do you want to talk to me?" I ask.
"Why don't you sit here, honey," I say, pointing to an empty chair close by.
He sits down, a solemn expression on his face.
Why did I call him honey?
Wilkes speaks about the group's Parental Awareness program. Parents and educators meet with the Lifers in the prison auditorium every Monday evening to discuss methods of preventing juvenile crime.
Two hours have elapsed. It's time to conclude the interview. I have gathered enough information to fill a book.
"Thank you very much," I say, shaking hands with each of the men. They thank me.
"Could we have a copy of the article after it's published?" asks Jones.
"I'll have the Journal send a copy to you," I tell him. "The article should be published in about a month."
"I'll be here," says Jones.
Augie escorts me down the iron stairs and through the locked doors.
"I can't believe it," he says, as the last of the heavy doors closes behind us. "You've never been in a prison before?"
"No, and I promise to be good," I answer.
Back in Augie's office, my pocketbook is returned and arrangements are made for me to come back for the "tour."
"See you next week," says Augie, shaking my hand.
Next week I'll wear jeans and comfortable shoes. I limp to my car, carrying the precious tape recorder.
Rahway State Prison, 1978
SCARED STRAIGHT was an award-winning television documentary written and
produced by Arnold Shapiro, and released in 1978. I began this, my first
"Scared Straight" newspaper story, with Lifer Wilke's quote: "The sun
doesn't shine over this place. It's afraid it's gonna get trapped."
I visited the prison many times throughout the years, doing interviews
for articles that were published in several newspapers, including The
New York Times. I also served on the Lifers' Advisory Board.